Judith Cochrane MLA said: “In December the Unionist Parties brought a motion to the Assembly Commission calling for a consultation on the number of days the Union flag flew from Parliament Buildings. The motion they brought sought to include a predetermined outcome by calling for the number of days to be increased. It also lacked an Equality Impact Assessment.
“At that time, I made it clear that I was not prepared to discuss the matter during constant violence and intimidation. There are those that say that by doing this I was boycotting the Commission meeting, however I believe it was a principled stand that gave those proposing the motion the time to reflect on their role as Commission Members, that allowed some of the heat to go out of the situation and that prevented a kneejerk reaction.
“In the background, however, I did meet with other Commission Members to see if we could get a consensus on the manner in which flags could be discussed in a formally constituted Commission meeting. I reminded my fellow Commission Members that our role is to serve the Assembly and not individual Parties, and when making decisions, we should have due regard for equality, and also that in June 2000″The Commission agreed that the flags issue is a political matter best handled by the Assembly and that the Commission would operate to the existing regulations and take its direction from the Assembly.”
“However, there is an option for Members to bring a motion and while I don’t agree with DUP/UUP for bringing this forward in this way, they were operating in line with Commission procedures.
“Also, the Assembly Commission’s remit includes the responsibility for Good Relations in this building, and therefore whether I feel that flags and emblems are a matter best dealt with in the Assembly itself, the reality is that the Corporate Body also has a role to play.
“I feel strongly that this matter will not be resolved satisfactorily without due regard for equality and therefore I was not willing to support the original motion, however I showed leadership in trying to bring forward a revised motion that could be acceptable to all.
That the Assembly Commission task officers to bring back a report, within 3 months, and following consultation with Assembly parties, reviewing the number of days upon which the Union Flag flies from Parliament Buildings and detailing a range of options and how a process of public consultation could be carried out, and arrangements for carrying out of an EQIA.
“And let’s be clear – by agreeing to this new motion, the DUP/UUP have moved substantially from their original position in 4 ways.
1 – we are now asking for a report not a consultation
2 – there is no longer a pre-determined outcome
3 – an EQIA is now included
4 – the assumption that the Commission is the only place for the final decision to be taken has also been removed.
“This is what consensus politics is about. The Speaker also sought to have all Commission members present in order to formally agree how wide ranging the report might be. Unfortunately, some Members still felt unable to participate in this discussion.
“Parliament buildings hosts a large number of events and visitors each year and has a significant opportunity to play a leading role in the encouragement of dialogue, shared learning and mutual respect for different faiths and cultural backgrounds.
“The Stormont building and its history represent challenges which require careful presentation. I believe that these challenges can be met through attention to detail and sensitive negotiation.
“The GFA states that ‘All participants acknowledge the sensitivity of the use of symbols and emblems for public purposes, and the need in particular in creating the new institutions to ensure that such symbols and emblems are used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division.’ Those that signed up to the Agreement and those who have taken office in the new institutions have a duty to ensure that we deal with such issues sensitively and with an outcome that is balanced for everyone.
“I believe the existence of an ad hoc committee and the work proposed for the Commission are not mutually exclusive. One might even inform the other and therefore I am content to support the motion. There is a need for mature debate around these contentious issues and we need to balance the role of the Commission where the Commission Members are to act with integrity, including political impartiality, and with the party political views of Members which can be expressed via this ad hoc committee.
“We should see this proposal, not as a threat, but as an opportunity to look at issues that will allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to be reflected as an Assembly for everyone. We have an opportunity to show leadership in addressing difficult and challenging good relations issues.”